‘The Brown Girl’ is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous…the whole thing feels lighter than air.
By Thomas Blake
Folk music has a unique kind of liveliness that springs from its adaptability, pliability and ambiguity. No two interpretations of a traditional song are alike because no two performers share precisely the same experience. As a black singer working in a category of music largely associated with white voices, Angeline Morrison’s perspective is – due in part to historical marginalisation – particularly uncommon. Morrison is a vocal advocate for increased diversity in British folk music: later this year, she is due to release The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs of Black British Experience, an attempt to redress the imbalance of history by writing black people’s stories back into the UK’s musical heritage. But first, we get to hear The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs, Morrison’s more orthodox take on a collection of ten traditional songs.
Recorded in Cornwall, where the Birmingham-born Morrison has long been a resident, The Brown Girl is an intimate experience, musically minimal but full of warmth. A cappella opener, The Green Valley, is a beautiful introduction to her singing, which has a clarity and sweetness that belies the moral twists and ambiguities at play in the lyrics. Although this and most of the other songs here do not deal with explicitly black protagonists, lines like ‘Am I bound or am I free?’ take on deeper layers of meaning in Morrison’s rendition, proof of how vivid and mutable folk songs can be.
The multi-tracked vocals of Our Captain Cried have a bewitching and otherworldly quality and also serve to emphasise the song’s multiple perspectives, while the title track sees her joined by co-producer Nick Duffy (of the Lilac Time) on spidery acoustic guitar. It’s a combination that brings to mind Shirley Collins’ work with Davy Graham or, more recently, Stephanie Hladowski and C. Joynes’ album The Wild Wild Berry.
Morrison has dabbled in folk horror, 60s-style psych and hauntology in her Ambassadors Of Sorrow guise. This affinity with the more eldritch reaches of the British musical landscape is there in abundance on the spooked recorders of The Cruel Mother and the drones of When I Was A Young Girl. The Well Below The Valley revels in its dark themes of infanticide and incest: Morrison’s voice is eerily confiding, strangely present, insistent even at its quietest. The brutal violence of Lucy Wan is rendered with a soft immediacy that makes it all the more chilling. Morrison has stunning control over the emotional depths of these songs. Her musicianship is equally impressive – Idumea (an eighteenth-century hymn written by Charles Wesley) floats on a rippling gauze of dulcimer, and a brisk, autoharp-led run-through of Bonny Cuckoo is bright and blossomy.
The Brown Girl is one of those rare records that feels perfectly weighted, entirely free of anything extraneous. Every multi-tracked harmony or subtly plucked string has its place, and the whole thing feels lighter than air. That is a remarkable achievement, given the gravity of the subject matter in many of these songs, the layers of history they have accrued over time, and the wholly new perspective Morrison brings to them. By the time of the final, contented exhalation that puts a seal on the closing track, Must I Be Bound, it’s almost as if a satisfying but mysterious journey has been undertaken, one that will lead ultimately to many further destinations.
The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs is out now.